So far this season, UCLA’s big men have not measured up

Big plans remain in the works for UCLA’s two-bigs lineup.

Withering in the face of foul trouble against Gonzaga last week did not change the Bruins’ opinion that going big is the way to go.

“It can be a big weapon for us,” said UCLA assistant coach Darren Savino, who led the team’s practice Tuesday with coach Mick Cronin out sick.

In theory, pairing 7-foot-3 freshman Aday Mara with 6-9 sophomore Adem Bona should lead to plenty of easy baskets around the rim, rebounds and kick-outs for open three-point shots. The early results have fallen short of expectations, though Mara playing only three foul-plagued minutes against the Bulldogs and Bona being limited to 21 were partially responsible.

It’s true that UCLA is outrebounding opponents by an average of 9.5 per game and has accounted for 86.5% of its scoring on two-pointers and free throws as a reflection of an inside-out approach.

Yet Bruins (4-2) have hardly been a dominant offensive rebounding team, snagging just 31.3% of their misses to rank No. 134 in the country going into a game against UC Riverside (3-4) on Thursday night at Pauley Pavilion.

They are also making just 29.5% of their three-pointers, on pace to break the school-worst 32.3% from the 2019-20 season. When they missed all six shots from long range against Long Island earlier this month, it broke a streak of 792 consecutive games with at least one made three-pointer, dating to 2000.

Savino said the poor three-point shooting has largely been a function of passing deficiencies.

It also remains unclear if Bona can be dominant around the basket against top-tier competition after averaging 12 points against Marquette and Gonzaga compared to 18 against Saint Francis, Lafayette and Long Island. Mara’s production has been underwhelming through his first handful of college games, averaging 4.5 points and 3.0 rebounds in 10.8 minutes.

“We just have to figure it out and it’s going to take some time and we have to realize that patience is going to be a part of this process,” Savino said.

Those who favor UCLA going back to the four-guard lineup it has used for most of Cronin’s five seasons can point to the emergence of freshman Ilane Fibleuil, whose defense and rebounding against Gonzaga in the 69-65 loss were reminiscent of former Bruin defensive menace Jaylen Clark.

Playing the power forward spot as part of a small-ball lineup, the 6-6 Fibleuil grabbed eight rebounds, blocked two shots and forced Gonzaga’s Anton Watson into his only miss on a night he made 14 of 15 shots.

“I was hoping to play defense on him a little more,” Fibleuil said, “but it is what it is. “We’re going to see him in March [in the NCAA tournament] and we gonna win that time.”

UCLA's Ilane Fibleuil flexes his muscles along the baseline after making a play earlier this season.

Ilane Fibleuil has made a case to be the Bruins’ first player off the bench if not a starter early this season.

(Ryan Sun / Associated Press)

He played 17 minutes mostly because of the foul trouble among his teammates, which included backup center Kenneth Nwuba fouling out in only 14 minutes. At the very least, Fibleuil made a compelling case to take over a sixth-man role.

“If anything,” Savino said, “hopefully it gives him confidence that the things that we’ve been telling him that he’s really good at he can go out there and do it in a real game.”

Such as?

“He’s one of our highest jumpers, he’s got good size, he’s strong,” Savino said. “He can get in a stance and defend people and play smaller people, play bigger people. So he brings a lot of athletic versatility to the game and I think that could really help us as we move forward.”

Especially if he gets the minutes needed to make something happen.